Breakfast (Psst. It's a euphemism). Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
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Rule one of the Breakfast Club: there’s no place more embarrassing to see someone you know

Does a breakfast taken in the first term of the Thatcher administration still count?

And so to – well, how shall I describe the place where I am sitting? There are people with delicate sensibilities out there, some of whom write to me, more in sorrow than in anger, when I use a rude word in this column. I am not saying these people are unaware of or squeamish about the facts of life; in fact, I consider them the nation’s backbone, and probably the kind of people who can be relied on to make you a decent cup of tea when they offer you one.

So let us say ... let us say I am at a place called the Breakfast Club.

The Breakfast Club is the place you go to when, for example, a lady says she might like to have breakfast with you, but wants assurances over and above your word that you have not, by reason of having had breakfast with another lady at any previous point in your life, contracted anything she might catch, thus marring or putting a dampener on her having breakfast with either you or anyone else in the future. I am referring, of course, to unprotected breakfast.

One’s word in this matter is not enough. There is a character in The Archers – so crooked, as the sublime Nancy Banks-Smith describes him, that he could hide behind a spiral staircase – who has been accused by his ex-wife of fathering her child; he refuses to “play her twisted game” by having a DNA test. His current partner may be deluded enough to believe him but it is only a matter of time before she learns the error of her ways.

So, it is with a squeaky-clean conscience that I turn up to the Breakfast Club. I know where I have had my breakfasts and exactly whom with for many years now. But there is still a stigma attached to such places, the faint echo of sniggers at postwar cartoons from the more risqué magazines. I look about myself. I’ve been having the feeling, very strongly, all day long, that I am going to run into someone I know. I put this down mainly to the fact that I’ve been bustling about London on an errand for myself all afternoon, and that even though there are ten million sinners in the city, you’re more likely to meet one of the few you know on the Tube or some other public place than in the bedroom of your Hovel, eating Frazzles.

The waiting room is large and partitioned; but at one point a couple of us, sitting in one of the outlying regions, are asked to go back to the area just opposite the admissions and pre-check interview desks, “so we can see how many people are waiting”. Apparently a significant proportion of those who attend the Breakfast Club lose their nerve at some point and do a runner before they are called. Anyway, this move places me in an area in which seven or eight people are waiting in close proximity to each other; if you put a Monopoly board on the table in the middle we could all have a game together without anyone having to stretch.

Interestingly, although there are distinctly separate Male and Female waiting rooms once registration has been done, until then it would seem the NHS likes us all, men and women alike, to get chummy to begin with. All this while answering questions on a form that some might consider to be intrusive – but are, I concede, entirely relevant. Have I ever had anal breakfast? Golly. Have I ever had breakfast with a man? Well, at the university I was at, the only way you were going to have breakfast with a woman student was if you owned half of Devon or were already a woman, so . . . But does a breakfast taken in the first term of the Thatcher administration still count?

I try not to stare but, as Terence put it, Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto; also, it would appear that the women here are more attractive than average. “Hello, lovely,” says the admin clerk to one exceptionally attractive woman, loud enough for all to hear, and proceeds to chat her up. The best place? Opposite me is an aged Muslim man. I can tell he is Muslim because of the headgear, the beard, and the fact that his phone’s ringtone is a chanted verse from the Quran. When he gets up, he walks with a gait strongly suggestive of intense genital chafing.

I also notice, with a certain amount of pleasure, that I am by no means the oldest man there. “You see?” I feel like saying. “There’s life in us old dogs yet. There are still women out there who . . .” and while I’m looking at the back of a new arrival’s head, he turns and sees me and, with a big smile on his face, advances towards me, his hand outstretched in familiar greeting. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times